By Aaron Burch, D.T. Robbins, and Kevin Maloney
I. LOVE IS A LIFE TAKER
I knew soon as I saw him this guy was going to give me trouble. Same as I knew soon as X told me about James at work they were going to have an affair; same as I knew my dad would be of no help when I called for advice but I did anyway, if only so I could feel mad at him instead of myself; same as I knew soon as the guy at REI started answering my questions about which tent was best I’d buy whichever one he recommended, same as I knew I’d never take that tent out of its box but I liked the idea of myself as a guy who threw a tent into his trunk and set out on an adventure and I was toying with the idea of becoming different ideas of myself; same as I knew it was a bad idea to go to that ATM back near the bathrooms and withdraw as much it would let me, same as I knew I would lose it all same as I’d lost everything I’d walked into the casino with but, fuck it, why give up on letting things go now; same as I knew soon as I saw this bar from the road that nothing good could come from stopping here, same I knew they’d have my heartsongs on the jukebox, and that was what I needed — not a new tent, not some emotional fatherly advice, not one more turn as shooter while everyone around the table cheered me on, but a little time in a dive bar in a town I’d never been in finding new ways to lose things I didn’t know I had.
I ordered a bourbon and coke, threw it back like it was a shot, set the glass down on the counter like placing a baby bird back in the nest it fell out of. Ordered another, carried it with me to the juke.
He was already there, like waiting for me. And he was first, fine, whatever. It’s true. No big deal. I just wanted to queue up something next, before anyone else got in line or he loaded up a whole night’s worth. It’s happened before. Next thing you know, it’s last call and you never even got your songs, just threw away more money at problems that never went away. So, sure, I looked over his shoulder, but I wasn’t trying to monitor his choices or anything. I didn’t give a shit what he played, but I was curious. Couldn’t help myself. Curiosity killed the growing pile of bad ideas, I guess.
This guy turned around, saw me spying.
“You have a problem, shithead?”
“I’ve got lots of problems,” I said. I wasn’t trying to be clever. It just came out. I think I’d been needing to hear myself say it out loud. For someone else to hear me say it. To make my confession.
“This will help you feel better,” the guy said, and gave me the most sincere, genuine smile I could remember being on the receiving end of. It broke my heart.
I looked at the juke, and at the very instant I saw that he’d cued up “Scar Tissue,” I heard him say, “People can say whatever they want, but John Frusciante is the heart and soul of the Chili Peppers.”
Jesus goddam fuckin’ shit. A Frusciante guy?
II. THE FRUSCIANTE GUY
I was sitting at the bar, drinking my third or fourth pint since the doctors pumped the Vicodin and Smirnoff out of my stomach. I’d just gotten out of the hospital. Technically, I wasn’t discharged. My right arm still had a plastic tube coming out of it. It was dribbling blood all over the counter. It didn’t matter. The patron to my left kept flicking a cigarette lighter under his knuckle hair, and the bartender, from what I’d overheard, had a warrant out for his arrest for armed robbery. This was the kind of establishment where a little blood on the counter was expected.
I noticed a jukebox in the corner and recalled an article I’d read recently while doing a stint in Washoe County Penitentiary. It was about the healing power of music. A team of sadists masquerading as scientist had cut the arms and legs off a hundred innocent geckos, then measured their ability to regenerate limbs while listening to Mozart. Their conclusion was that Mozart helped. The scientists received an award. Not a word about the havoc they’d wreaked on those terrified amphibians.
I needed something like that. Not Mozart, but the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In particular, the song where Anthony Kiedis sings about living under a bridge shooting heroin all day, then gets an idea and puts a sock on his penis and becomes a millionaire with a house in Malibu and six model girlfriends. I wondered if something like that could happen to me.
I walked over to the jukebox and was fishing around in my hospital gown, hoping to find some money, when a guy in a Seattle Mariners cap walked up behind me and breathed down my exposed neck like he was going to goose me or jam a knife into my kidney.
I spun around and said, “You gotta problem, shithead?”
“I have a lot of problems,” he said, wiping his nose.
I laughed. He was clean-shaven and wearing Blundstones. He had all his teeth. The only problem he had was deciding whether to spend his ill-gotten tech money on cryptocurrency or at an all-inclusive eco-resort in Papua New Guinea.
“Well, this’ll make you feel better,” I said and queued up “Scar Tissue” on the Wurlitzer. I stood back triumphantly, but I hadn’t put any money in it. The machine only responded to capitalist contributions.
I tried to explain my situation… about Mozart and geckos and John Frusciante, who spent a decade shooting heroin and talking to ghosts, then got sober and recorded the greatest album of all time.
Seattle wasn’t listening. He pushed past me, dropped a quarter in the jukebox, and pressed a series of buttons that summoned “Say It Ain’t So” by Weezer.
There have been many terrible songs written by many terrible bands since man first banged two stones together and called it music, but somehow this Bitcoin bro picked the worst one.
Bad feelings seized me. I remembered the hospital giving me medicine that was supposed to make me sleepy, but I was seized by a tremendous energy. I grabbed an empty bottle off a nearby table and cracked it over Seattle’s head.
Instead of falling to the floor like a regular person, he just stood there staring at me, trying to fathom what had happened. He opened his mouth to say something as blood ran into his eye.
“You cock-rock motherfucker,” he whispered and took a swing.
It was the strangest thing. I dodged his punch, but the drugs I was on made it so that only my mind moved to the left, while my body remained in place. My face took the full force of the punch. I watched myself fall to the floor.
Seattle started dancing. He was completely insane. Maybe he had real problems after all.
III. Imprints of Others
After too much codeine, the original owner of the bar fell asleep at the wheel and barreled into a center divider. When his wife signed the bar over to me, she lamented he was unconscious as the flames ate him away. Some women want you to die twice. Some men deserve it. If you ask my ex, she’d concur I was one of them. Long story short, I steer clear of Jacksonville.
These days, the bar is a mural of hopelessness. From the cigarette ash and spilt beer on the counter to the sawdust and dried blood on the floor, this pocket universe is a meat grinder. Yet, desperate souls flood this place every night aiming to untether themselves from fear and insecurity and other lower vibrations and touch something eternal. Not a church or a synagogue or the YMCA. Here. A bar that hasn’t changed the urinal cakes in…who knows how long.
Take these two incandescent assholes for example.
I watched the redhead in the hospital gown spill bare-assed through the doors. He clambered up the barstool and asked for a craft beer. I said we have one IPA. He wanted a taster. It missed his mouth entirely, trickled down his chin like a child at a water fountain. He ordered two pints. He had no money, but I’m the patron saint of the downtrodden. For the next hour or so, he conversed solely with the demons in his mind.
When Mr. Seattle walked through the doors, he looked both ways like he was crossing the fucking road. He ordered a bourbon and coke. No lime. I left two in a shot glass anyhow. When life loses its flavor, I guess it doesn’t matter, does it?
They waltzed around the jukebox, squaring one another up. Under the neon glow of the Bud Light sign, I guessed the redhead was either smiling or baring teeth. Mr. Seattle dropped a quarter in, and some song started playing. I don’t much hear the music anymore. Everything outside of Molina and Hank sounds like broken bottles and muffled sobbing.
A bottle rained down over someone’s head and another person’s fist cracked across the other person’s face. The redhead crumbled like a paper man. Mr. Seattle stood triumphant until a shard of glass went into his calve. He watched blood seep through his khakis like it was happening to someone else. He slunk onto the redhead. They rolled around on the ground like two virgins fucking for the first time.
Mr. Seattle screamed, “You ruined everything!”
The redhead went, “I am the eater of worlds!”
Mr. Seattle yanked what looked to be an IV tube out of the redhead’s arm. Blood sprayed like a geyser. The redhead laughed, maniacal and free. Mr. Seattle got blood in his eye, which accelerated his pure fucking rage. His arms became windmills, missing most of the shots but landing a few that made the redhead go cross-eyed. Still, the redhead seemed to be enjoying himself—ass hanging out, covered in blood and beer, shouting about doing heroin under a bridge. The rest of the bar, its beautiful spectators of brave men who put a single arm out in front of the women for a feigned sense of protection, nodded their heads from the fight to me, the fight to me, the fight to me. I can never have my own problems. Everyone else has to lump their fucking issues in too.
I grabbed them by their clothes and met their eyes. The redhead was dazed. Mr. Seattle blubbered.
“Take this shit outside,” I said, “and work it out. Or don’t fucking come back.”
As I locked the front door at closing, they were sat on the curb outside, sharing a forty and a pack of smokes.
A bar is least lonely when there’s no one in it but you. There are imprints of others who were there before. Memories. Good, evil, human. At some point these memories transmogrify into one being. One ghost. I’ve been riding with the ghost. I’ve been doing whatever he told me.
Aaron Burch, D.T. Robbins, and Kevin Maloney’s collective top three favorite books of the last year are (in alphabetical order) Birds Aren’t Real, The Red-Headed Pilgrim, and Year of the Buffalo.